Everybody seems to know about Disney’s first technical achievement in the animation sound department, right? You know – the whole Steamboat Willie synchronized sound thing that popularized Mickey Mouse. Granted, Mickey had a part in two other cartoons before Steamboat, but synchronized sound really put him on the road to stardom.
But Disney had another technological breakthrough that’s somewhat lesser known – even though it could be called the grandfather to our modern day surround sound. Home theaters are increasingly prevalent today, and you can own your own multichannel speaker system for only a few hundred dollars. But 60 years ago, multichannel sound was only beginning – and it started with Fantasound.
Disney’s Fantasia was the first commercial film to use multichannel sound, even though stereophonic sound was around since the earlier 1930s. In fact, Leopold Stokowski, the conductor for Fantasia, participated in multichannel recordings as early as 1932. He also recorded stereo sound for a movie being made by Universal, but that film was only released in mono sound.
Enter The Mouse – Mickey and Fantasound
While Fantasound was created for Fantasia as a whole, the project really started with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Walt Disney was present when Stokowski was recording audio for the short cartoon, and Disney loved the rich sound he heard during the recording sessions, but he didn’t love how the recordings sounded when played back. Disney thought they sounded “too tinny and un-dynamic” – and this obviously wouldn’t do for what Walt was envisioning with Fantasia: a film centered around not only animation but the full, rich sound of an orchestra. So he asked William Garity, the leader of his sound engineering department, to come up with something better than the sound processes used during that time.
Garity and his team worked for months to get Fantasound going. This may sound like a long time to work on a single project, but remember that this is only the late 1930s. To have Walt tell Garity to come up with a solution in 1938 and have that solution recording audio by 1939 is pretty impressive.
Under The Hood
Fantasound used multiple microphones to record different parts of the orchestra. All of these microphones recorded to different tracks, and there were a total of eight tracks. After recording, the team mixed these tracks down to three audio tracks. These tracks (along with a fourth track that was used for volume control, which allowed for automatic volume adjustment) were printed on a filmstrip and synchronized with a separate Technicolor filmstrip. (For more on this, click here. Also, I found an article published in 1941 that was co-written by William Garity. It’s very interesting and very, very technical. If you want to give it a go, click here.)
Here’s a staggering fact. Our iterations of surround sound are usually referred to as 5.1 and 7.1 systems. What this means is that there are either five or seven speakers (respectively) and one subwoofer (for the low bass sounds) that make up that surround sound system. For Fantasound, theaters were equipped with anywhere between 30 to 80 speakers. The speakers allowed for a more dynamic sound, which fixed the “tinny and un-dynamic” problem that annoyed Walt earlier. Here’s an interesting fact: Disney became one of the earliest Hewlett-Packard customers by purchasing eight Model 200B oscillators to certify the speaker installations.
But these installations scared off RKO Radio Pictures, Disney’s regular film distributor. Walt had to distribute the movie himself (for the first time ever) and planned a roadshow release for Fantasia. The show debuted in New York City on November 13, 1940, and also stopped in Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. Sadly, Fantasound never materialized beyond these venues.
Fantasound Falters, Is Recognized, Then Makes Its Way Back
While the technology worked, and many said it was a marvel, Fantasound never really made it beyond Fantasia. Disney handed the film over to RKO in April 1941, and RKO immediately mixed a mono version to distribute to theaters nationwide. While this allowed plenty of people to see the film, it may have hobbled its overall effectiveness. During Walt’s time, Fantasia was not the success he envisioned it would be. We may consider it a classic, but if Fantasound had taken off it may have become a landmark.
But, in 1942, Walt Disney, William Garity, and John Hawkins received an Academy Award for advancing sound in motion pictures. Later, stereophonic sound was brought back to Fantasia for a 1956 re-release. For this release, copies were made on magnetic sound film because the original recordings are believed to be destroyed. These copies would come in handy (and if you have a DVD of Fantasia, you should rejoice over this fact) for the 1990 theater release and the 2000 Fantasia DVD.